In bell hooks' article "Postmodern Blackness," what is the main issue? Why does she mention essentialism?
The main point is that, at the time of this essay (1990), postmodernism was the most popular trend among academics and other intellectuals for its ideas of "heterogeneity, the decentered subject...recognition of Otherness"—all ways of saying culture was trying to help encourage the marginalized and forgotten voices in society. However, those thinkers at the forefront of postmodernism were essentially following a "do as I say, not as I do" model. They would try to argue for new ways of thinking, or argue against old ways of thinking, while at the same time falling slave to their own old ideas about there being "no meaningful connection between black experience and critical thinking about aesthetics or culture".
bell hooks uses essentialism as the main way of exposing the postmodernist hypocrisy pervading culture. Essentialism argues that one particular truth or standard exists to which all of us should be working towards or adhering to. Postmodernism is opposed to essentialism because essentialism takes away the possibilities for unlimited viewpoints or perspectives in which we can live and see the world. hooks believes that postmodern culture looks to destroy essentialism in its ideology but actually favors it in practice, because the conversation being had in postmodernism is "primarily to a specialized audience that shares a common language rooted in the very master narratives it claims to challenge."
Despite the hypocrisy postmodernism shows in its view of essentialism, hooks finds encouragement in postmodernism anyway. By exposing essentialism as false, hooks argues that postmodernism has created a "yearning" that unites everyone who has ever felt misunderstood or devalued. hooks ultimately sees postmodernism as doing good, and she sees that the project of dismantling essentialism has the potential to free the truly oppressed—they only have to see the limits of their current postmodernist society first.
The main issue in this essay is expressed by bell hooks in the following quote:
The failure to recognize a critical black presence in the culture and in most scholarship and writing on postmodernism compels a black reader, particularly a black female reader, to interrogate her interest in a subject where those who discuss and write about it seem not to know black women exist or to even consider the possibility that we might be somewhere writing or saying something that should be listened to, or producing art that should be seen, heard, approached with intellectual seriousness.
In most scholarship on postmodernism, hooks sees very little representation of black voices, and almost no black female voices. Part of this is because of the systemic racism in the academy, which according to bell hooks is both a cause and an effect of the belief of African American scholars that there is little in postmodernism that is relevant to the black experience.
The irony is that postmodernism is based in large part on the idea of specificity and diversity of experience, and hooks argues that black postmodernist writers have actually absorbed and accepted, and ratified through their works, the white supremacy that they have sought to challenge. But hooks claims that recent developments, especially deindustrialization, have created the possibility for empathy across identities. White working-class people are experiencing the same "hopelessness" as many black people.
But, the central concern of this essay is that black scholars should employ the critique of "essentialism" that is central to postmodernism without rejecting the idea of a black experience. Most important, black scholars (like hooks herself) should engage with people in the community, especially artists, whose work is also a form of criticism.
The main issue in this article is found in the title. Theorist bell hooks is trying to help readers understand the relationship between the cultural movement known as postmodernism and issues related to race in America, especially for Black Americans. Hooks mentions essentialism because that's one of the major areas postmodernism addresses, and one that may be useful for Black thinkers (and that they must address even if they disagree). Postmodernism rejects essentialism, seeing all claims to an essential identity as faulty. Instead, identity is constructed by culture. This includes the entire idea or category of race. Hooks sees postmodernism as a potential political tool.